Dialogues - video interview with Richard Sylvester


About Richard

Richard met Tony Parsons five years ago and attended regular discussion groups in Hampstead. Richard is the author of 'I Hope You Die Soon - Words on Non-duality and Liberation'. He now holds his own discussion groups in London, Tunbridge Wells and other locations.

For more information visit Richard's website www.richardsylvester.com

Liberation has nothing to offer

Halina: In your book you say that irritability doesn’t arise in liberation.

Richard: (Laughs). No, I didn’t say that irritability doesn’t arise. What I said was that irritability is a neurotic manifestation of anger. It is possible that when liberation is seen neurosis will decrease and so the character may be more likely to feel angry rather than irritable. To suggest that irritability, for example, can no longer arise would be to suggest that there is some sort of gift in liberation, some sort of gain. And that is such a hook for the mind to grab hold of. There is no reward. Liberation has nothing to offer to a person.

The mind is desperate to find any hook that it can use to haul itself up the craggy cliff face of liberation. When this message is communicated clearly then the cliff face crumbles and all the hooks fall out, denying the mind any possibility of getting higher up the cliff.

I was giving a talk recently and I was just about to answer a question when someone interrupted me and called us for tea. After tea, of course I couldn’t remember what I was going to say so I told the group “That’s a pity because the secret of liberation was in that answer but we had a cup of tea instead.” But really you are better off with a cup of tea because you can do something with it. You can drink a cup of tea but you can’t do anything with liberation. So it’s best just to forget the idea that you may become less irritable or envious or depressed, because what happens when liberation is seen may be exactly the same as what happens when it isn’t seen. Whatever happens simply happens and that could contain irritability.

From the aspect of no-self- what is the mind?

One of the things that is seen when the sense of a person drops away is that there is no such thing as a mind. There are thoughts, feelings and perceptions. These are simply phenomena arising in awareness one at a time. But when there is a person, thoughts come so thick and fast and seem to have so much energy attached to them that an impression is created that there is an entity called the mind which is thinking these thoughts. It seems undeniable to a person that “I have a mind”, that there must be something thinking these thoughts and producing this energy. There is a sense that this something must be “me”. We could say that the words “mind” and “person” are almost synonymous. The sense that there is a mind produces the sensation that there is a person and vice versa

What can happen in liberation is that this is simply seen through. In liberation there is a release of energy, an energetic shift. This is not a gift or a goal. It’s just something that happens. It is as if a lot of the energy bound up with thought dissipates.

Thinking doesn’t stop in liberation. There is nothing wrong with thinking. It is simply seen that thoughts arise from nothing. They arise and then they fall back into nothing. The mind is something like an idea or a sensation which seems to be interpolated between nothing and a thought. We cannot see that thoughts arise from nothing and so we imagine an intermediary called the mind. But this just falls away in liberation.

You mention Suzanne Segal’s book ‘Collision with the Infinite’ She describes the frightening experience of suddenly there being no-self. Tony talked about self developing as a protection for the organism. Can you say why there is such a development of self? Are there any positives?

For a person there are lots of rewards but there are also difficulties. Rather than seeing it in terms of positives and negatives I would say that selfhood just happens. When self- consciousness arises it brings both the promise of personal fulfilment and the threat of personal suffering. It is how the game of life is played. It is continually reinforced by everything in society. For example advertisements continually offer the promise of personal happiness if we take this holiday or use that baldness cure. Everything shouts at us “You are a person and you can experience personal fulfilment.”

The sense of self inevitably arises. But it can fall away.

When we talk about underlying unity it is difficult not to give the impression that we are saying there is something wrong with being a person although that is not what is being suggested here.

There is nothing wrong with being a person for there is nobody who could be doing anything wrong. The self is just awareness arising as the individual self. How could there be anything wrong with that? Nevertheless, at the centre of the individual there may be the feeling that there is something wrong. There may be the idea that there is something wrong with “me” or with “you” or that there may be something wrong with life. And this is clearly what fuels a lot of activity.

I especially like one quote from your book: “Awakening is seeing the emptiness of the void. Liberation is seeing the fullness of the void.” Can you talk about that?

Again I am aware that the phrase “seeing the fullness of the void” can sound attractive and so it can become another hook for the mind. But it isn’t attractive. It is simply seeing the fullness of the void. That’s no more attractive than a cup of tea.

What I was trying to describe were two apparent events. The first event I would call awakening. What is seen in awakening is the complete non-existence of the self and the emptiness of the void. This is referred to in some traditions as seeing the emptiness of all phenomena. It’s paradoxical that in other traditions they talk about “self-realisation”. Actually what is realised is that there is no self. There is no lower self and there is no higher self. There is simply emptiness.

Later on there was another event and it was realised that it is a very full emptiness. These words are paradoxical and don’t get the mind anywhere but that is the best I can do. The mind might ask “If it is a full emptiness, what is it full of?” It’s full of love. All that can be said about this is that everything is emptiness and everything is also love. However when we look at certain aspects of the apparent manifestation, this can sound very baffling to the mind. The mind might say “Look at what is going on in the world! How can that be love?” The only answer I can give is that is just how it is. Saying that everything is love is not a teaching. It is just a description of what is seen in liberation and it may make no sense to the mind.

People get obsessed by the idea of the transition from being a person to ‘being’. It reminds me of the cartoon showing twins in the uterus and one asks the other: “Do you believe in life after birth?” “No” replies the other one: “It is just a myth.” My NCT group focused on the birth rather than the idea of having a baby afterwards. So when we talk about liberation there are a lot of personal hooks around transition.

The mind is always trying to make something of this but it is impossible for the mind to grasp it. We might say that there is a shift and that this shift is both tiny and cosmic. What can the mind make of that? Yet that is what is being said here. The shift is both tiny and cosmic. But “cosmic” does not contain rewards.

Everything simply arises from Presence

Another quote from your book is that “being awake and being asleep are the same”. Can you explain what this means?

It is paradoxical and an attempt to prevent another hook from being hammered into the cliff face of personal enlightenment. Whether or not presence is seen, phenomena continue to arise. Thoughts, sensations and feelings continue to arise. In that sense there is no difference between being awake and being asleep but this cannot be seen whilst we are asleep. Whilst we are asleep we feel as if there is something to be gained and this fuels the life of the person as we may rush about trying to get something. The person feels that we can get somewhere or gain something that will at last make us feel fulfilled. We will try to do all sorts of things to cure our dissatisfaction. That might be making a lot of money or praying to God for a change in our circumstances or seeking enlightenment for example.

When awakening happens this may all be seen through. And when liberation is seen there is no longer anyone there who feels that they need to make things better.

Tony talked about the qualities that arise when there is no person. Being a friend arises instead of someone who is a friend. Somehow the qualities without ownership are richer.

Yes, I relate to that. Of course “relationship” is a concept, isn’t it? It can sound quite frightening to a person to hear that there is no such thing as relationship. But when the person isn’t there anymore relating simply happens. It is possible that relating might be more intimate or more loving if the concept of relationship has dropped away.

In the story there seems to be “me” and “you” but really there is just Oneness manifesting as two apparent people. There may be more immediacy when there is awareness of presence in which ideas and concepts no longer play an important part.

From a non-dualistic perspective what would you say is compassion?

It is difficult to talk about because compassion is bound up with moral, religious and spiritual ideas. For example, some people see compassion as an attribute of the heart, which is confusing. However I would say that when there is a personal identity then there may be more neurosis and neurosis is a great crusher of compassion. Neurosis grabs the attention of the person and can produce an inward looking self-obsession. It is difficult for a person to feel compassion when they are obsessively wrapped up in their own story. When the person vacates the premises they may take a few suitcases of neurosis away with them. This may leave more space for compassion to arise and more awareness of how difficult it is for others to be a person. But ultimately compassion, like everything else, simply arises out of nothing.

I used to have lots of ideas about personal growth and spiritual development. Paradoxically it was more difficult then to notice suffering in another person as my thinking was bound up with assessing my own progress along an imagined spiritual path.

There is more space in an empty house for compassion to arise.

The Expectation of Happiness

Tony also said how there was no expectation on people attending meetings and after spiritual striving this can be a relief.

Yes, I loved that part of his interview when I read it on your website. Expectations can be so subtle. There are always expectations if you are a student. I was listening to an interview with Mathieu Ricard on the radio last week. He is a French Buddhist monk who has written a book about happiness. American scientists have tested his brain wave patterns and found him to be the happiest person that they have ever come across. He sounded like an absolutely delightful man. I would love to spend an afternoon with him. But can you imagine the expectation of going to a Buddhist retreat where happiness is being taught! You’d probably be trying to gauge your happiness and comparing yourself to the other students in the room! In a way it is another form of oppression, the expectation that I must not be miserable or that I am failing my Buddhist teachers by not being happy enough. It’s something else to fail at.

That expectation of being happy seems the major foundation on which the self continues.

It is very seductive and lies at the heart of much of our activity. It may lie at the heart of a person seeking happiness on a Buddhist retreat or of a terrorist setting off a bomb. A person has the idea that if I do this or that I may become happier. We all want to be happy.

I have just been contacted by someone who is a Christian who said it was a revelation to realise that he didn’t need anything else from God. People spend so much time praying to God for so many things.

Yes, I know somebody who was brought up in a strict Christian family. He said that after one visit to Tony there was such incredible relief. He could let go of all that need to please God.

The Communication of Non-duality

In writing about non-duality for your book do you feel anything has fallen into place?

The only thing I would say is that in writing about this the communication may have become clearer. So it may appear that things are being realised that were not realised before but that is only an appearance. It doesn’t really matter, but there are probably ways of thinking about this that will only emerge if an attempt is made to communicate about it.

Instead of writing a book about non-duality do you think you could have written a more lucrative one about becoming a more successful person?

(Laughing) Yes, except that every part of that field has been covered. If you go into any bookshop the shelves are groaning under the weight of self-help manuals. But the fact that there are so many of them should make us suspect that they don’t really work.

I talked to Tony about the way this message of non-duality comes out almost as a surprise to the character of Halina. Do you have a similar sense when this is being communicated?

Very much so. I have taught adults all my professional life and I am used to teaching workshops on Psychology or Counselling where everything is carefully prepared. One of the things that surprises me is the absolute impossibility of preparing anything to say about this in advance, whether I am coming here to be interviewed today or giving a talk. It is impossible to prepare, apart from maybe scribbling down one thought on a piece of paper and stuffing it into my shirt pocket before a meeting in case I find I am absolutely paralysed and there is nothing to say when the time comes. But so far that hasn’t happened! Words always seem to come from the immediacy of presence. My intended two minute preambles sometimes stretch to half an hour while the character Richard sits watching, agog at what is being said.

It is difficult to talk about this.

Nevertheless, lots of words seem to arise. In trying to point to this we are attempting the impossible. We must remember that in talking about this we are still telling a story, the story of non-duality. But some stories point clearly towards what is and some stories point confusingly away from what is. The story of non-duality, when expressed clearly, points as directly as possible towards what is.